Monday, July 20, 2009

Why not almost any other famous person? |

It would be an exaggeration to say that Frank McCourt is the reason I'm a writer, but to the extent that I'm not a terrible writer, he deserves a lot of the credit. McCourt was my high school English teacher. I took several classes with him — anybody who took one always pulled whatever strings they could to get more. It was from him that I learned to listen for "the poetry of everyday language." He despised ornament in writing, vastly preferring elegance. If he heard a word in an essay that wouldn't have come out of your mouth, he'd ask who was supposed to be speaking. And while I can't fully agree with him that no writer should ever use the word "trudge" for that reason, I know that I've never used it. He squeezed out my teenage tendency toward melodrama and clichéd romanticism and drew out gimlet-eyed honesty. He would not like that I just said "gimlet-eyed."

As you can imagine, McCourt's teaching method was largely storytelling. And singing. I will never hear Wild Mountain Thyme without thinking of him. He retired the same year I graduated, and by then he knew he was an inspiring figure. He used to say that when we went on to use his advice to write a book, he'd want 10 percent. Of course, by the time my first book came out, I could have given him 90 percent and it wouldn't have begun to approach 10 percent of what his made. Never has anyone deserved success more completely.

Over the years I'd run into McCourt periodically and he was always warm and friendly. I last saw him a few months ago at an event he did in Woodstock and when I gave him a copy of Rapture Ready! he held it up for the crowd and beamed, "Former student!" It was perhaps the most rewarding response I've had.

Beyond the practical lessons I learned in Frank McCourt's class, I'll always remember him as a model for how to be cynical without being jaded and sarcastic without being inhumane. I'm pretty sure he did not believe in God or an afterlife, but he had to believe that there is an immortality in living so that your words and actions transform the world around you in ways that will continue to reverberate forever. No one with so much life in him can ever truly die. And if there were an afterlife, I can guarantee you that somewhere right now, Frank McCourt would be mightily pissed off that he's not around for what's sure to be a hell of a wake.